The Walkmen - Heaven

An album rich with emotion, and engaging, intelligent lyrics.

Label: Bella Union

Rating: 9

With an impressive back-catalogue and metronomic consistency another album from The Walkmen meeting mild critical acclaim was one of the surest bets of the year. Starting over ten years ago in the garage rock New York scene that gave us the likes of The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Walkmen somehow avoided the hype of the bands around them, offering a reserved, dignified alternative, taking pride in not being quite so “rock and roll”. With their maturity and ability almost unquestionable, as highlighted by the very well received 2010 release ‘Lisbon’, the question became where to next? What could be added to the mixture, what could be further refined? On paper at least the answer was anything but obvious.

“We’ll never leave, Oh we can’t be beat” resounds opening track ‘We Can’t Be Beat’ in what’s a marked departure from the downcast pessimism fans have become accustomed to. It’s certainly not an untried approach but once again they use the powerful tone of vocalist Hamilton Leithauser to steer each song, through the understated guitars and reserved drumming. ‘Heartbreaker’ takes a textbook indie rock riff and adds the coifs and chrome of old hollywood, a perfectly resolved evolution of the basement shaking sound they debuted in ‘The Rat’. Playfully, the song revolves around the refrain “It’s not the singer, it’s the song” showcasing the wit and gallows humour that have pounded through the veins of The Walkmen for over a decade. By sixth song “Line By Line” the album has already created an intimate but grand atmosphere, each song to follow offering a new variation on the core components of immaculately sparse guitar and well-placed organs and Leithauser’s characteristic delivery. The choice of Phil Ek on production duties has left the music following a parallel path to Fleet Foxes’ ‘Helplessness Blues’, another excellent record produced by Ek, but ‘Heaven’ never once strays into imitation. The twinkling guitars of ‘Nightingales’ conjure a starry scene, but with a summer warmth in contrast to the snowy tones of Lisbon. ‘The Love You Love’ sees the band returning to some old school hyperactivity, but still married to the ballroom aesthetic the album so thrillingly maintains. Long before the album has ended you’re fully aware that you are enjoying a truly special album, in a bracket not many others will reach, as confirmed by the compellingly passionate title track ‘Heaven’. The penultimate lullaby ‘No One Ever Sleeps’ features Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, his soothing ‘oohs’ marrying perfectly with Leithauser’s strident vocals before the album closes with the remorseful tale of ‘Dreamboat’.

Not since Cold War Kid’s ‘Robbers & Cowards’ have I enjoyed an album so rich with emotion, with engaging, intelligent lyrics with every syllable delivered as though Leithauser’s life depended on it. But that represents only half of the proposition as it is combined with thirteen tracks of inch-perfect, stunningly resolved instrumentation. For much of the opening track The Walkmen muse on the meaning of perfection, but as far I can identify, they aren’t merely debating it, they’re approaching it. ‘Heaven’ represents a high point in the era of the guitar band that couldn’t be seen, barely imagined, through a fog of radio-obsessed Coldplay, Kings Of Leon stadium filling insincerities. As anyone who really rather likes music would probably recognise, there may well be no such thing as a ten out of ten album, a level of perfection and flawlessness that is by all likelihood totally unobtainable; but it’s hard to imagine anyone coming closer than these five men from New York.